Past Lives of Books

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I’m really excited about the following post — it’s from a talk I gave last summer and I’ve been trying to work out how to give it a second iteration. Anyway, came out of my thinking about the apartment gallery as a form; I started seeing connections between the apartment gallery and the work of Gordon Matta Clark (which I may have mentioned before) at which point the “House” began to operate like a text in my mind. The following essay tries to think through the significance of that, especially in regards to marginalia, graffiti, and cut-ups.


Walter Benjamin allegedly had an opportunity to leave Germany when Axis borders were still somewhat porous. Had he chosen to flee then, it’s likely he would have survived the war. To do so, however, he would have had to abandon his personal library and for that reason chose to stay behind. While I’ve wondered what books he so dearly amassed, I imagine his attachment had less to do with the books themselves and more with the notes he’d scrawled on various margins. Those thoughts he could not have recouped so easily, like breadcrumbs of thought maybe, deer trails familiar to Benjamin when found, but not so easy to re-inscribe. His marginalia was evidence of his relationship with a text. But then again marginalia terrorizes the book. It signifies a book’s mortality, demonstrating the ease with which a book can be intervened, transformed or defaced forever. I want to call attention to those moments when a given reader is compelled to trespass the authority of a text, to disobey a very basic obligation ingrained at a very early age: not to deface a book. During such transgressions, beauty can emerge in the tension between the landscape of a text itself and the trace of its reader. A book is made to be read, as a house is made to be inhabited.

Judith Brotman. “Natural Selections,” 2005. Leaf, thread, trim.

Chicago artist Judith Brotman engages leaves in her series “Natural Selections.” She very delicately cuts up, splices together or highlights their unique form using stitch work. On the one hand, these interventions call attention to the delicate fragility of leaves as a medium, on the other, the grain pattern of each leaf becomes a text in its own right. Inscriptions like these  activate a surface—whether the original text be a book, a house, or a piece of bone—drawing something latent inside the text out into the open of a reader’s mind… (continue reading)

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